$60,000 Sought From County For Animal Control

 

The Greene County Commission's Animal Control Committee voted Thursday to ask the Health Department to request additional funds to alleviate the animal control problem.

The vote was five to one, with one member absent.

The committee asked Bill Smith, director of the Greene County Health Department and a committee member, to request a total of $60,000 from the county government for animal control in fiscal 1999-2000, instead of the current $15,000 appropriation.

The funds would be used to hire a second person to help Dillard Shelton, the Health Department's rabies control officer.

Also, a small truck would be purchased for the second officer, and additional money would be available to increase the number of dogs and cats that the Hamblen County Humane Society in Morristown is handling under contract with Greene County.

According to the committee motion by Commissioner Gary Rector, the officers would not have arrest or citation powers and wouldn't be law enforcement officers.

Rector's proposal, seconded by Commissioner Bill Brown, had some elements that were also in a proposal voiced earlier by veterinarian Vickie Howell, but did not go as far or cost as much.

At one point during the discussion, Brown said, "I won't vote for a tax increase" for animal control.

Commissioner Jim Eagle, chairman of the animal control committee, said the committee's recommendation, based on Rector's motion, would be presented to the county commission's Budget & Finance Committee at its next meeting.

Smith agreed to rework the Health Department's budget, which has already been tentatively approved, to include the new request.

County Commissioner David Thompson, who voted against the proposal, said afterwards, "I feel like with so many other needs in the county, we will not be able to afford - to justify - that kind of appropriation."

At last week's meeting, Thompson, a Sheriff's Department dispatcher, said that, while he does not deny there is an animal problem, it is not as high a priority as employee benefits and annual raises, or schools.

Commissioner Betty Alexander said after the meeting that she believes the recommendation is "a good step forward. We've come to some common ground where we can work together, and any time you do that, you've made progress."

Animal Shelter Proposal

Early in the meeting, Dr. Vickie Howell, a veterinarian and an advisory member of the committee, made a proposal, drawing on research on animal shelters and animal control that she had done since last week's meeting.

Howell said that a shelter needs to be able to accommodate about 200 animals per month for stays of at least three days, based on past experience. By state law, animals picked up for any reason must be kept for three days before they can be euthanized.

In practice, healthy dogs or cats that are potentially adoptable are usually kept longer, from five to seven days or more, she said.

She noted that the plans shown to the committee last week did not include an isolation facility for sick animals. Howell said one is definitely needed. She also said that she believes that the space for housing animals is too small.

The plans were prepared last year by Vaughn & Melton, at the request of County Executive Alan Broyles, Eagle said last week.

Howell recommended that the shelter and animal control function be financed entirely with tax money, but also recommended that some of this cost be recovered through fees paid when owners reclaim pets that have been picked up when found running loose.

She said the range of budgets from the shelters she has talked to was between $125,000 and $300,000 per year, and the costs recovered varied.

One shelter that is comparable to what Greene County needs, Howell said, is in Oak Ridge. She said that the budget for that shelter is $190,000 per year, but $70,000 is recovered from owners' reclaiming of their pets.

Howell said the county government needs to plan for a facility that will last 20 years, and said that any building needs to be planned so that it will be easy to expand.

Howell also recommended that the committee visit several facilities before committing to a plan, "so that we can know what we want in our county."

She also recommended that the county "consider immediately hiring an animal control officer" and contracting with either the Humane Society in Morristown or possibly the Greene County Humane Society shelter to handle animals.

Commissioner Eagle said he had contacted Greeneville Mayor G. Thomas Love and asked him to send a representative to the meeting, but no city government representative was present.

Commissioner Tim Armstrong said that, for now, "the bottom line is, if we don't have money, we can't do anything."

1999-2000 Budget

Eagle said that, with the budget process for the fiscal year that begins July 1 in the late, budget-cutting stages, this is "a bad time" to be talking about an added expenditure.

Eagle also noted that more animals have been picked up in prior years than this year. Howell said that one reason for this is the Greene County Humane Society's aggressive low-income spay and neuter program.

She said 500 animals were helped in this program, significantly reducing the number of litters of unwanted animals.

Commissioner Alexander asked how an animal control officer with arrest authority would actually proceed. Howell said that this officer would respond to calls about animal problems, and would be able to take an animal directly to a shelter if it was found to be running at large.

Howell said fines would be collected when someone identified himself/herself as the owner.

Shelton said later, that, currently, he must have the complaining person sign a statement saying he/she does not know who the owner of the animal is, before he picks up an animal.

Howell said that many animal problems that she is aware of involve the same person letting the same animal run at large over and over again.

Eagle said that law enforcement cannot do anything until a warrant is sworn by someone.

Brown said that he can understand the Sheriff's Department's view, and many times sheriff's deputies can only advise complainants of warrant procedures, much like they do in cases of domestic or other assault cases.

Rector said that "nine times out of 10, the dog is not identified with a collar." In such a case, unless someone is willing to swear as to who the owner is by taking out a warrant, the deputy cannot proceed legally.

"How can he write out a citation?" Rector asked, noting that the officer cannot prove ownership unless the animal has a name on it.

Eagle said it is his understanding that the Tusculum municipality does enforce the state law about dogs running at large.

Budget Request Discussed

Eagle said midway through the meeting that the committee "needs a figure to give to the Budget & Finance Committee" for the 1999-2000 budget.

"Should we double the $15,000" now allocated for handling animals at the Morristown shelter, at the rate of $30 per cage? he asked.

Smith then said that the Health Department could not handle twice as many animals without more help. Dillard agreed, saying, "Greene County's too big."

At that point, Rector suggested hiring someone to help the Health Department effort. He said that this measure would be less expensive than hiring a law enforcement officer.

Eagle said that, with a waiting list for animals to be picked up by the Health Department, "We're just not doing the job." Later he said, "We've got to do something now. People are waiting for days."

Larry Self, a hunter, outdoorsman and columnist for The Greeneville Sun,said he believes that part of the animal control problem is that "nobody has a place to drop them off." He said that has been the case since the Humane Society began charging fees for dropping off unwanted animals, and is especially true now that the Humane Society has a long waiting list because of its "low-kill" policy.

Self suggested fencing off a corner of each of the county's garbage collection "convenience centers" as a place where people could drop off animals.

Howell said that doing so might expose the county to liability problems, and suggested talking to an attorney about that idea.

Alexander said, "We have to get a figure somewhere, to begin to work on the problem."

She said she believes that the city of Greeneville would go along with trying to work out an agreement to handle more dogs either at the shelter in Morristown or here.

After more discussion, Rector said, "We've got to get Dillard some help," and noted again that even if the county government were to fund the handling of more animals, Shelton could not handle them any faster by himself.

Smith then said that salary and benefits for an employee would cost $20,000 in round figures. Another vehicle would cost between $10,000 and $12,000, he said. Smith said that a used or surplus vehicle, while cheaper, would not be as reliable. He said that between $40,000 and $60,000 would be needed to "double" the effort.

Role For Humane Society?

Howell asked if any consideration could be given to "helping the Humane Society," if the group is agreeable to some sort of plan to add a wing of animal spaces.

Rector said that, while that was not in his motion, the committee would, of course, "continue to work on the problem." He indicated that anything more elaborate would not be possible in this year's budget.

When asked, Rector and Brown said that the measure did not provide for an animal control officer who can write citations, only for an expansion of the current program through the Health Department.

Smith was asked if the Town of Greeneville contributes to his budget. He replied that the city does, though no money is specifically "earmarked for animal control."

Shelton was asked if his work is mostly city or mostly county. He replied, "It varies," but added that the majority is county.

Eagle speculated that the city's participation could be on a 70/30 basis, because about 30 percent of the county's population is in Greeneville.

Smith agreed to re-work his budget with a specific proposal within the $60,000 figure, and resubmit it to the Budget & Finance Committee. Smith noted, for the record, that the Health Department would not be responsible for 24-hour coverage, as had been discussed at one point.

Shelton was asked what kind of vehicle he uses. He said he uses a pickup truck, but noted that it is not really suitable for the purpose. He said a van with six kennel cages on each side would be much better.

Commissioner Tim Armstrong said that he believes that the vocational automotive school (at the Greeneville-Greene County Center for Technology) could build a body on a pickup chassis to the county's specifications, if the county would provide materials. Armstrong agreed to look into this.

Howell asked if she and Peter Noel, president of the Greene County Humane Society, should look into whether that group is open to discussion about some type of cooperative venture, and the committee agreed they should.

Eagle noted, however, that any agreement would only be for housing animals for a short time, and would not mean that the county government was turning over control to the Humane Society.

One member of the audience, dog breeder Linda Duggins, said that she does not believe that the Humane Society "has held up its end of the bargain," in view of the county's donation of land for its shelter. She said that, for this reason, the county should not try to work with the Humane Society.

But John M. Jones Jr., editor of The Greeneville Sun, said that the organization's operation of the local shelter from 1981 to the present without public funding assistance - an expense totaling several hundred thousand dollars - needs to be considered.

Eagle said that all avenues need to be explored, and disagreements in the past are no reason not to try to work together toward common goals.

Brown also said that the committee needs to continue to study how best to do a county shelter, or a city-county shelter, and "get prices together."

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